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Aquatic Agents: The Role of Sea Lions and Dolphins in the Military

Author: Nikki Jiang

Editors: Chiara Chen and Sophia Chen

Artist: Olivia Yuan

Believe it or not, the playful and friendly sea lions and bottlenose dolphins you know and love are essential members of the U.S. military defense. If you are impressed by their spins and ability to balance a beach ball on their nose, you’ll be even more amazed when you learn about the marine mammals that protect our country. The unique physical characteristics of these animals make them ideal for many military roles. In fact, sea lions and dolphins have been used since the Cold War by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  Scientists have discovered that sea lions and dolphins possess unique abilities that allow them to detect mines and survey the coast, making them invaluable assets in the U.S. military. 

What makes sea lions and bottlenose dolphins so trainable and useful in the military? The answer lies in their impressive underwater navigation skills, acute hearing, and exceptional eyesight, which make them excellent at detecting underwater mines. Sea lions have an unparalleled ability to maneuver through water with astounding agility, unachievable by trained divers or advanced technology. On the other hand, dolphins have remarkable echolocation abilities, allowing them to locate underwater mines and other foreign objects from up to 650 ft away purely through echolocation. On top of that, dolphins also have excellent hearing and can detect suspicious sounds up to 2 kilometers away, with higher frequencies detectable from even over 20 km away.  Can you imagine being able to hear across the entire length of Manhattan? Well, bottlenose dolphins certainly can. Dolphins can hear a very wide range of frequencies from 2-200,000 Hz; for comparison, the human ear can detect sounds from 20- 20,000 Hz. Unlike our external ear canals, dolphins have enclosed ear canals with special structures in their jawbones that detect sound. Dolphins and sea lions also have excellent low-light vision, allowing them to navigate dark and murky waters. Both animals have incredible physical structures and heightened senses making them perfect to fulfill specific roles in the U.S. military defense. 

Due to their wide skill set, sea lions and dolphins hold a variety of roles in the military. Sea lions are trained to detect mines on the seafloor, while dolphins are used to detect underwater mines. According to the U.S. Navy, sea lions can recover objects in coastal areas and attach Navy equipment recovery lines to the ocean floor. Both animals are trained to conduct surveillance by tracking the underwater movements of intruders in military waters. They can be found swimming alongside small boats to detect and apprehend any threats, such as unauthorized swimmers, who might attempt to harm the Navy. Their exceptional sensory systems make them perfect for detecting even the slightest changes in their environment. 

Using sea lions and dolphins in military defense offers several advantages over conventional military technology. They can navigate and maneuver through underwater terrain, a skill that is unmatched by any technology. They are also able to comfortably withstand high water pressures, diving hundreds of feet below the surface, where a trained human diver would risk decompression sickness and even death. Their accuracy and efficiency in mine detection are greater than any current military technology. Lastly, they are more cost-effective than relying solely on equipment, which can be expensive to purchase and maintain. The use of sea lions and dolphins provides a unique and valuable contribution to military defense systems and continues to be an effective tool for protected naval assets. 

Military work does not come naturally to these marine mammals. Sea lions and dolphins require extensive training to perform military duties, but they are incredible learners. For example, training a sea lion to defuse mines involves a process of instrumental conditioning, where the sea lion associates a round or light cue with a specific behavior. Their natural abilities, such as the aforementioned exceptional mobility and hearing, make them easier to train than any other animal. Meanwhile, dolphins are often trained using positive reinforcement techniques, built on trust and mutual respect between trainers and the dolphins. 

The physical attributes and trainable nature of sea lions and bottlenose dolphins make their contributions to U.S. military defense unsurprising. Their unique abilities make them essential for detecting underwater mines, surveillance, and identifying threats. These animals are far superior to other military technologies in both accuracy and efficiency. The next time you see these amazing creatures at the aquarium, appreciate the remarkable capabilities they bring to military operations! 



Lee, J. J. (2021, May 3). Military whales and dolphins: What do they do and who uses them?.


Marine Mammal Program. Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific. (n.d.).

Navy seals: Why the military uses marine mammals - JSTOR DAILY. (n.d.). 

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